Posted on 1-December-2007
According to a report published recently, the Chinese authorities were irked or disgusted that Anthony Blair Esq., QC, a very successful British barrister and till recently Her Britannic Majesty's First Minister had accepted a speaking engagement in China for a fee of 200,000 American dollars in return for which he would hardly do more than recycle what he had said before at other places. On another occasion Mrs. Cherie Blair, QC, also a very successful British barrister caused eyebrows in the United Kingdom to be raised because, it was reported, she had accepted a speaking assignment for a substantial fee while accompanying her husband, the British Prime Minister, on an official visit abroad. It is said that the speaking fees charged by the Blairs' friend Mr. William Jefferson Clinton, till not long ago the President of the United States of America, a man of considerable financial worth even after paying all the legal costs of his sexual peccadilloes, are such that no ordinary town or association can afford him. Perhaps all the three donate their speaking fees to some charitable foundation or the other. If that were so, they could achieve the same end by appealing directly for donations to those foundations, saving themselves the trouble of rehashing their speeches.
Diverse Hindu gurus and godmen have discovered and exploited the market potential of instant spirituality and canned yoga, collecting substantial sums of money for their establishments from their clients in India and abroad. Many in this age of television occupy important telecasting slots in competing channels boosting the revenues as much of the channels as of the 'ashrams' they run. In the USA, famous evangelical preachers have been successfully marketing their sermons just as latter day tele-evangelists have not been averse to exploiting the commercial potential of television.
As I reflect on the high earnings of celebrity speakers, star preachers and popular teachers of vedanta, yoga and Hindu spirituality in our days my mind turns to the practices of other more 'primitive' ages. Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, roamed the plains of North India between the ages of forty-five and eighty speaking to people who came to listen to him, living on daily offerings given to him by devotees, accumulating no wealth. The stoics, and, later, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle freely propagated their ideas to whoever came to them asking for nothing in return. Jesus of Nazareth, comfortable in the company of publicans and sinners, charged no fees for his Sermon on the Mount. Nearer our days, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, a barrister from the Inns of Court in London, gave up his legal practice and, in time, all earthly possessions and devoted his time to ceaselessly propagating his ideas in writing and speech on the different causes he supported. Taking money in return for what he wrote or asking for fees for his speeches would have been inconceivable for him. Yet the value, impact and the timelessness of what the Buddha, the stoics, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Jesus or Gandhi had to say far exceeded the importance of the soon forgotten speeches of Mr. and Mrs. Blair, Mr. Clinton or of the equally forgettable sermons of modern evangelical preachers or of numerous Hindu gurus and spiritual teachers.
It is a peculiar feature of modern life that not only tangible goods, land and houses and various direct and indirect services are bought and sold but also that ideas, concepts, thoughts and artistic creations should be bought and sold for prices determined by the market. The idea that people with a name should charge fees for speeches before invited audiences is an integral part of the kind of market economics in which practically anything and practically any human activity is a commodity to be exchanged for a price. Whether commoditising all human activity extracts unacceptable human and social costs is a question with which neither the market nor the worshippers of the market are concerned. Yet, no matter how outlandish it might seem, the question whether all human activity should be subjected to the principles of the market must needs be asked. Mr.Blair charging fees for speeches he makes or Picasso's successors selling one of his paintings for a few hundred million dollars are questions with relatively limited social relevance and impact. There are other activities with wide-ranging social implications.
Of those with wide social relevance, two of the most important seem to be the profession of healing and the profession of teaching. It seems ironical that in a modern society people should 'buy' health care and education and yet that is becoming common practice not only in the affluent West but also in a developing country like India. The quality of health care a person can get is dependent on the kind of money he or she is prepared to spend. More and more hospitals are run like commercial enterprises--in India there is talk now of 'medical tourism', by which is meant that private hospitals would attract high spending patients from other countries while the ratio of population to doctors and hospital beds in the country remains woefully low and millions of poor Indians go without even primary health care. Likewise with education. School education has for many years in many countries of the West, or, in India been subject to market economics: expensive and elitist education for the children of the rich and common and ordinary education in publicly funded schools for the children of the poor, or no school for the extremely poor. Increasingly, privately funded, expensive universities and institutions of higher learning are beyond the reach of the poor. There is the curious phenomenon these days of private American and Australian universities marketing themselves in a country like India, as the number of those with the income to finance the education of their children at these places, increases--at the same time the quality of education imparted in Indian universities has been in decline for a number of years.
In a modern society, after food, clothing and shelter, two of the most important needs for the development of the full potential of a man are health care and education. Just as in a good society, none of its members should go without food, clothing and shelter, so also all its members should have easy and equal access to health care and basic education. While food, clothing and shelter should generally be produced by people by the sweat of their brow--the community coming to the aid only of the infirm--health care and education cannot be made accessible to all if they are left to the operation of market forces. Ideally they should be the responsibility of the entire community. Doctors and teachers would need to have their livelihood assured. Ideally, this should be done by the whole community. In a book written about three quarters of a century ago, Aldous Huxley suggested that many societies had people he described as mendicant contemplatives who were supported by the society and whose only obligation was to meditate about the great questions of life, death or nature. Huxley thought that scientific researchers and to some extent university professors were modern mendicant contemplatives. Perhaps the teacher and the healer are the most eminently suitable for the role of the mendicant contemplative. This may be an unserious suggestion but it is my reaction to some of the more crassly commercial aspects of modern health care systems and modern education.